Domestic Workers Remain Outside the Law, Thanks to Gov. Newsom

In early 2020, the California Domestic Worker Coalition launched a campaign to correct a historic wrong: the exclusion of nannies, cleaners, home attendants, and day laborers who work in private homes from health and safety standards. New Deal labor standards had deliberately omitted domestic (and agricultural) jobs, doing nothing to relieve the low wages and poor working conditions faced by Black women who dominated household work in the aftermath of slavery and Jim Crow. The 1970 federal Occupational Health and Safety Act, and its 1973 California equivalent (Cal/OSHA), also failed to include paid household workers, refusing to recognize such workers as deserving safe environs.

Even before the pandemic, workers recognized their need for protection from hazards, including toxic cleaners. Many had to clean up after deadly wildfires without any personal protective gear. In 2020, California State Senator Maria Elena Durazo, the former head of the Los Angeles Federation of Labor and immigrant rights champion, introduced SB 1257, “The Health and Safety Act for All Workers,” to remove the exclusion from Cal/OSHA. Despite sailing through the California Legislature, Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed what would be the first of three bills shepherded by Durazo on the grounds that ”a blanket extension of all employer obligations to private homeowners and renters is unworkable” and that employers lacked “the expertise to comply.” He threatened another veto in 2021, which ended with his signing an amended bill that authorized Cal/OSHA to establish an advisory committee of stakeholders (employers, advocates, workers, health policy experts, and academics) to create voluntary health and safety guidelines and make recommendations for enforcement for this sector.  On September 30, 2023, Gov. Newsom vetoed Senate Bill 686, which would have expanded the definition of “employment” in the labor codes to include household workers in the state’s occupational health and safety laws. The Governor left an estimated 300,000 privately employed workers in the lurch, as was the case with other recent state labor protections. Rather than right a historic wrong and end the exclusion, Newsom grasped for excuses, leaving the lives and health of this now largely immigrant, women of color workforce unprotected.

In this roundtable, two individuals involved with Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network explain why they supported 686 and how it would have benefited both domestic workers and employers.

Eileen Boris is Hull Professor of Feminist Studies at the University of Santa Barbara, a scholar of domestic and care work, and the author with Jennifer Klein of Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State.  

Jessica Lehman is an employer of home attendants and the former Executive Director of Senior and Disability Action. 

How did you both become involved in this campaign for SB686?

In explaining the reason for his veto, Newsom claimed to be protecting domestic employers. “The households that employ domestic workers include middle-and low-income families and older Californians who require daily assistance,” he noted. “I am particularly concerned given that approximately 44% of the households that employ domestic workers are low-income themselves, that this bill creates severe cost burdens and penalties for many people who cannot afford them.”  We beg to differ from the Governor. He removed a budget provision that would have aided such employers.

We both employ people in our homes. The labor of those we employ makes our lives possible, and we recognize that our homes become workplaces when we hire people to clean them or provide care for us or our families.

Jessica: I’ve been acutely aware of my role as an employer since I moved from my parent’s house at age 18. As a wheelchair user, home attendants are fundamental to my independence, assisting me to get dressed and ready for the day, so I can work and be active in my community. These valuable staff who make my life possible deserve to have a safe work environment. But it’s not always easy to be an employer. SB686 would have given me, and other disabled employers needed guidance to set up our homes safely.  

Eileen: I have relied on cleaners for decades, beginning when my son was a toddler and my spouse and I were starting our careers as professors. I soon discovered I have bad allergies to dust, grass, and other irritants, which improved immensely after the careful and knowledgeable work of house cleaners. I came to understand that their working conditions were my living conditions, and I have a responsibility to make sure those conditions do not put them at risk. On first hiring my new cleaning service, we walked through the house, noting potential hazards. I signed a contract and added health and safety protocols. I straighten up before the job begins by checking that there are no cords or other potential items that could lead to tripping. I also take out bedroom and bathroom waste and put away personal items, like medicines. When the workers point out a problem, I seek to mitigate it, like supplying padding for a rug or purchasing a particular polishing brand. They are, after all, the experts. I also am sure to pay a living wage.

Some people might be surprised to learn that domestic workers are not included within the category of “employee” in California state law, like federal and many other state laws. Can you explain why this is?

Eileen: Household work is associated with unpaid labor, the work of the enslaved and the work of the housewife. Such work is considered “unproductive” because the product is caring for people through maintaining their living spaces or their bodies.

Because Black and other mostly women of color have performed these labors in a restrictive labor market, even when nominally free, household work suffers from a double stigmatization: dirty work reserved for enslaved populations and a labor of obligation for mothers, daughters, and wives.

What reason did Newsom give for vetoing SB686?

Jessica: In his veto statement, Governor Newsom stoked employer fears by naming the largest possible Cal/OSHA fines ($15,000 per offense), when the reality is that Cal/OSHA’s existing penalty structure allows for reductions and full waivers based on the severity of the violation, size of the employer, good faith efforts, and violation history.

Eileen: Newsom also claimed the bill would subject private employers to the same regulations as businesses. Yet SB686 was specifically crafted for employment within the home and was based on the recommendations by a 2022 Cal/OSHA committee that we both sat on. The legislation also provided time for Cal/OSHA to integrate those recommendations into industry-specific guidance through their regulatory process. Ending the exclusion of domestic workers from health and safety protections, the advisory committee concluded, is the necessary first step to beginning this process. Newsom’s veto ignores the fact that domestic employers are already liable for any illness or injury that the worker they employ sustains on the job through workers’ compensation requirements.

What would SB686 have done to promote occupational health and safety for domestic workers and employers?

Jessica: The bill included a technical assistance fund for low-income domestic employers. It would have provided funds to cover the costs of making our homes safer, such as purchasing masks and gloves, or for larger purchases such as Hoyer lifts for transferring wheelchair users in and out of bed.

SB 686 was accompanied by a budget request for this fund for low-income employers, but Newsom did not include it in the 2023-2024 budget that he signed in July. 

Eileen: SB 686 would also have provided the protections, education, and financial assistance to prevent injury and mitigate the costs of employer liability. By signing SB 686, Newsom would have protected domestic employers as well as domestic workers, by providing information on how to protect from a range of hazards, including heat exhaustion, unsafe chemical substances, airborne pathogens, and more. To be fair, the Governor kept in the budget $35 million for the Domestic Worker Education and Outreach Program that goes to community-based organizations, like ethnic associations, worker centers, and work groups of the California Domestic Worker Coalition.

What can advocates and policymakers learn from this setback for domestic workers’ rights in California? Where should we go from here?

Governor Newsom continued a stain on our labor standards regime rather than making history. But domestic worker coalitions are pushing forward. Campaigns for Domestic Workers Bill of Rights have expanded since New York’s first in 2011; Virginia’s in 2021 includes “a right to a healthy and safe workplace” but without procedures to create enforceable standards. A federal bill, like so much else, remains stalled in Congress. California workers will continue to push forward proposals. One thing is certain: future campaigns, like the past ones, will develop from workers and their deliberations. As employers and advocates, we are ready to do our part to correct a festering wrong and advance workplace safety for household workers. Better workplaces, we have learned, allow for better care—a win-win outcome for employers as well as workers.

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